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Volksopera Review: Der Feuervogel | Petruschka | Movements to Stravinsky

Volksoper has debuted a full evening of choreography dedicated to Igor Stravinsky’s musical work, Petrushka, Pulcinella Suite and Suite Italienne and The Firebird. What’s especially impressive about the evening is all three pieces are choreographed by Staatsoper born and bred talent. Eno Peci, András Lukács and Andrei Kaydanovsky all have enjoyed long careers as dancers and taken their own first steps as choreographers in the Staatsoper, often at Ballettclub’s Choreolab (coming up soon).

David Dato in a photo by Johannes Ifkovits, the publicity image.
In Movements to Stravinsky costume where Dato does not dance

Stravinsky’s compositions for ballet were the core of Sergei Diaghelev’s Ballets Russes. The Firebird premiere took place in Paris Opera in 1910, while Petruschka premiere also took place in Paris but in Théâtre du Châtelet. The original choreographer for both ballets was Michal Fokine. Both of these ballets enjoy a rich tradition around the world, with versions in the repertoire of The Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov), National Ballet of Canada, The Bolshoi Theatre, the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre to name just a few. Ironically enough, the Russian premiere of Fokine’s The Firebird had to wait until perestroika in 1993.

In fairness to Michal Fokine, what we saw this week should probably not bear the name of the original compositions, a while the music is still Stravinsky’s, neither the original choreography or libretto plays any role in Peci or Kaydanovsky’s creations.

Petrushka – Eno Peci

Nina Tonoli, Davide Dato in "Petruschka"
The original Petrushka tells the story of the puppet Punch (Petruscha) who loves a Ballerina puppet who in turn loves the Moor puppet who takes the Ballerina away from Petruschka. The loss of his love kills Petrushka. Most of the action takes place in the middle of a bustling Russian street market.

Petrushka is a difficult work to rebuild as a new ballet. The clown, his mistress, the Russian market. How do you replace all of that colour and energy?

Peci choose to open with a birthday party at home where Petrushka is with his beautiful partner celebrating the birthday of their young son. The ongoing motif is a clock installed in the ceiling on which the hands turn and turn.

Davide Dato in "Petruschka"

Suddenly we are in a white schoolroom with wooden desks and very high ceilings. The girls come in white jackets and very short skirts. Céline Janou Weder enthusiastically leads her able fellow classmates including Emilia Barano, Adele Fiochhi, Anna Shepelyova….in the playful dances of schoolgirls. They are joined by an equal contingent of six boys who quickly quarrel and stir up petty rivalries and trouble. On a high trumpet note Petruschka enters as a buttoned down school teacher in brown suit and tie.

David Dato quickly takes control of the hijinks and quarrel between the boys and the classroom settles down. Dato’s Petrushka owes more to Hollywood dance start Fred Astaire than Michel Fokine. He’s convincing in his fifties style persona with a big smile and a cheerful attitude.

Davide Dato in "Petruschka"

A very dangerous Rebekka Horner comes across as a giant wasp in her geometric black latex suit. It’s uncertain for me if Horner should represent the Magician or the Moor. In any case, she’s accompanied by two young street thugs who cause trouble at the school and rape the teacher/Petrushka’s wife. Trevor Hayden and Arne Vancervelde convince with malice. Even their 80’s hairstyles are offensive.

Rebecca Horner in "Petruschka"

Pavol Juras’s decorations, costumes and light are the real highlight. The huge blackboard, the high ceilings, the worn out windows, the faded colour palette are all on the mark. Peci has struggled with story in his past works, often as beautiful as perfume ads but equally shallow. It’s great to see him working in close partnership with a dramaturg. The great Juraj Grigorovich did his best work in close collaboration with stage designer Simon Virsladze.

Balázs Delbó has created a fantastic trailer for the piece which gives a real taste of the amazing atmosphere and the lighting, as well a short glimpse at the performances:



Less convincing is the relationship between Petrushka and his wife, a very beautiful Nina Tonelli. In the original, one feels Petrushka’s humiliation when the Ballerina prefers the Moor’s ravishment to Petrushka’s true love. This time around the humiliation takes place in front of his students. Any teacher would say that’s almost as bad. It’s quite a distance from unrequited love.

Nina Tonoli, Davide Dato in "Petruschka"

The choreography and movement are solid but not extraordinary. There is no original spark in the movement, instead a pastiche of suitable fragments gathered from here and there.

Peci and Jurás’s collaboration is an original and strange yet viable re-interpretation of Fokine’s work.

Movements to Stravinsky – András Lukács

Alice Firenze, Masayu Kimoto in "Movements to Stravinsky"

Movements to Stravinsky opens in a bare off-white box. The costumes are black and white. Some of the men have neck ruffles, some of the women battery lit horizontal white tutus.

The majestic Stravinksy melodies relentlessly insist on lyric art, as the dancers regally walk in from the sides, extremely elegant. Everything is extremely tasteful.

Between bouts of elegant walking we enjoy duets, solos and triplets.

The first pair is the best. Long limbed Cypriot Ionna Avraam is in another category tonight, bending her body like copper, harmonious, perfectly in sync with the music and very long. James Stephens is an able partner.

Nikisha Fogo, Greig Matthews in "Movements to Stravinsky"

The other major duet Nikisha Fogo and Greig Matthews. The choreography is excellent and Fogo’s soft curves are well suited to the sensual lifts. Unfortunately both she and Matthews appeared very uncertain while dancing. They could both use at least a week or two of additional rehearsal before public presentation.

Alice Firenze in "Movements to Stravinsky"

Alice Firenze with Masayu Kimoto fare better against a less challenging duet. Céline Janou Weder dances a trio in pants with an absurd looking Géraud Wielick in some kind of tunic skirt with a Mongolian pony tail on his head. Wielick’s casual hipster look nearly collapsed the entire aesthetic of Lukács’s neo-classical piece.

Alice Firenze, Masayu Kimoto in "Movements to Stravinsky"

Movements to Stravinsky is a lot like any Kyllian piece staged in Paris Opera from about 1985. Its roots go even further back to George Balanchine’s structured art like Jewels. Some would call Movements to Stravinsky dated, others might consider it timeless. The conservative Viennese audience adored it, András Lukács has created a real crowd pleaser. Movements of Stravinsky or something very like it will be danced in 2050 as well. There’s probably not enough passion or innovation in this particular version that it will survive much beyond next year. Choreographer András Lukács is capable of much more feeling.

The Firebird – Andrei Kaydanovsky

Rebecca Horner, Masayu Kimoto in "Der Feuervogel"

The Firebird is a great story of resurrection and redemption. Unfortunately choreographer Andrei Kaydanovsky has chosen to wrap it in his own dark notions of modern times:

rampant consumerism of our time, our egoism, and the problem of dead centres of personal development.

I don’t disagree with Kaydanovsky about the wasteland of contemporary mainstream life. But the Firebird was never about the mainstream and general despair. It was about rising above the ordinary.

As far off target as he is with the music and the theme, Kaydanovsky’s sense of stagecraft is magnificent right from the parting of the curtains. A group of men gather outside a Russian deparment store goggling at the mannequins. Kaydanovsky creates this atmosphere with just a few wood frames and a Универсал (Department Store) sign in Russian.

A man in a giant chicken costume wanders in and circulates among the men handing out restaurant fliers. After a time the mannequins come to life and the men flee. Chicken-man (the character of Ivan in the original Firebird follows the Firebird mannequin into the store where there is an entire wall of boxes stacked high in three giant shelves with the text above them in Cyrillic characters, straight out of Soylent Green.

Hier bist du Vogelfütter

Shoppers crowd around and riot underneath the boxes until they fall down. At this point the shoppers turn into zombies writhing in the boxes – Kaydanovsky’s rampant consumerism. The movement is very sloppy but exceptionally organic.

Ivan now follows the Firebird deeper into the basement factory of the department store where grey female rag doll princesses move along a conveyor line.

The dolls are dancers who drop into old dirty yellow foam at the end of the conveyor line. This is quite a clever reinterpretation of the twelve princesses of the original. There is still hope the story will take an interesting and parallel path with the original.

Masayu Kimoto, Davide Dato in "Der Feuervogel"

The workers are in overalls from the thirties or fifties. The vast empty space of the workshop is created by rows of overhead flourescent lamps. Richard Szabó in particular convincingly offers the rough movement of a factory worker in a trio with Zsolt Török and Géraud Wielick (whose hair once again distracts).

Ivan dances – rather stumbles around – with the mannequins trying to find one he likes. Finally he finds his Vasillisa in a dirty pink costume and a huge orange wig. It’s Rebecca Horner under a thick cake of white zombie makeup.

Rebecca Horner, Masayu Kimoto in "Der Feuervogel"

Their awkward duet finally ends in collapse on the floor. A window appears at the back of the atelier. Dato’s Firebird takes his place in the window when a man in a hotdog costume wanders by. The end. Kaydanovsky offers no redemption, there is no firebird, just a guy in a shiny jacket, luring you into a department store.

Rebecca Horner, Masayu Kimoto in "Der Feuervogel"

Kaydanovsky doesn’t give the dancers much to work with so one cannot talk much about the performances but all of the dancers acquit themselves well enough. While the performance and the stagecraft, Kaydanovksy’s The Firebird remains fairly shameless shocktastic piggybacking on top of a classic with which his work has nothing in common. An approach symptomatic of the same weak ethical qualities and consumerism about which Kaydanovsky complains.

Orchestra – Conclusion

Throughout the evening the orchestra under David Levi offered an excellent classic interpretation of Stravinsky’s splendid scores. The Volksoper orchestra is a bit thin for the Firebird in comparison to the Marinsky or Bolshoi or full Staatsoper orchestra but the three pieces make an excellent musical evening.

According to his granddaughter and trustee of his works, Isabelle Fokine, Michal Fokine was not keen on radical changes to his works:

When Alexander Golovin’s designs were destroyed, Diaghilev commissioned Natalia Goncharova to design a set that would be easier to tour. My grandfather was horrified by the result – “It dealt a death blow to my ballet.” This was due to the fact that dancers were reacting to elements of the staging no longer present. This may not have troubled Diaghilev, but to a choreographer for whom dramatic sense was paramount, Fokine believed it made nonsense of his work….My grandfather greatly resented his ballets being altered. Today nobody would dream of tampering with the work of a living choreographer, so it seems inconceivable that it took place, but it did – often.

It’s good thing Fokine has been dead for 75 years. Let’s hope Peci’s and Kaydanovsky’s revisions don’t bring him back from his grave.

Out of the three works, Eno Peci’s Petrushka is easily the most successful. If you don’t pass out from déjà vu, Lukács Movements to Stravinsky is harmless and elegant fare. Kaydanovsky’s The Firebird is painful and depressing. Watching it is a suitable and delightfully ironic punishment for those superficial balletomanes who seek only shallow beauty from a night at the operahouse. As the Volksoper is often the first place people see dance in Vienna, Kayadanovsky’s The Firebird risks demotivating many to ever see another ballet.

All images copyright Wiener Volksoper 2017 and Ashley Turner.
Dancer credits beneath each photo in lightbox
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